I’ve had some very good borscht before—versions cold and hot, chunky and smooth, its beets from a can and from a local farm. But not until Red Square have I eaten borscht in a bathrobe.
You can dine at Red Square, the reopened Division Street Russian and Turkish Baths, fully clothed, without paying for entry to the spa area. But I wouldn’t. Pay the (touch steep) $30 charge, and head downstairs to the saunas. Men and women have separate facilities; the women’s are (I’m told) smaller, but the main sauna is nonetheless spacious. I thought it was hot in there—until two Russian-speaking women came in, opened the furnace door and started throwing water onto it, turning the room into New Delhi in July. After an hour moving among the intense heat of the sauna, the milder whirlpool and the cold showers, I tied on a robe and headed up to the main-floor restaurant.
Many people will tell you it’s a terrible idea to mix alcohol and dehydrating heat chambers, but none of those people are Russian. Here, there’s a full bar with a decent selection of spirits (Del Maguey mescal, Leopold Bros. tart-cherry liqueur), though no cocktail menu. I went with a vodka on the rocks and a seat in the dining room, where flat-screen televisions, framed with curtains to resemble windows, display video footage of a rolling countryside. No, it wasn’t quite a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but it’s terrifically wacky nonetheless.
By the time the house-cured gravlax arrived, I’d forgotten that everyone in the dining room (though there weren’t many of us) was dressed only in robes. The fish was buttery and cloaked in dill and came with a little caper-egg salad and toasted brown bread. We followed it up with a terrific borscht, a dollop of sour cream swirling around cubes of sweet beets in a well-seasoned broth. Even a Caesar salad performed well above expectations, with pronounced anchovy flavor in the dressing as well as mild whole anchovies on top. This would have been plenty of food, but we tried the kebabs, too, a giant skewer of juicy but fatty lamb hunks over shriveled peas mixed with rice. It wasn’t amazing. Still, we were dining in a bathhouse that dates to 1906, in a dining room designed to look like a train car, in the heart of Wicker Park: What could have been better?